As predicated by ‘The Reason of Church Government’ (1642), ‘Trinity Manuscript’ (1641) and ‘Mansus’ (1638), John Milton had indicated the writing of Paradise Lost as early as 1638. Back then, he had intended to create a piece of work “doctrinal to the nation”; most probably an attempt to map the life of King Arthur. Milton’s towering ambition was to create a modern, national, English epic as Ariosto and Boiardo had done in Italy. Initially begun as a drama, the epic poem was commenced in 1658 and completed by 1664. Milton, the blind poet’s prodigious memory was turned into writing by scribes, mostly his daughters. Possibly drawing ecclesiastical inspiration from Du Bartas’s Divine Works and Days, he published Paradise Lost in ten books in 1667.
Ask any student of literature and their answer shall be one and the same– it is difficult to fathom the language’s imaginative splendour without recalling this coruscating jewel in its already decorated crown. John Milton bestowed English literature with its very first epic in Paradise Lost, a milestone quite unconventional in terms of subject and style. Keeping the larger-than-life theme constant, John Milton subverted conventions of Homer and Virgil to cast his religious subject in the light of renewed novelty of the 17th century. Book I evokes a diabolical image, placing us as third-person observers in hell.
The fallen angels are lying massacred after the war in heaven and Satan himself floats petrified on the “fiery surge” or lake of fire, his monstrous structure chained and stripped of its majestic glory. The Satan shown to us is not admirable but a supposed adversary and arch-enemy. Satan in Hebrew translates to ‘Plotter’, therefore alluding to his sacrilegious dissent when conspiring against heaven. Enhanced by the poet’s usage of a wide poetic license, Satan in Book I is a literary creation rather than the Biblical devil of pious Christian imagination, rooted in the 17th century assumptions. Satan is nevertheless the “Father of Evil”. A master manipulator and rabble-rousing politician (as we shall see later), Satan is outrageously impious. In a fit of rage, he labels God a petty tyrant whose wrath had confounded his comrades and himself to languish in the nadir of Hell. Nothing can be far from the truth, but this is only a minor glimpse of Satan offered at the outset.
Satan cites deep indignation, ignominy and “injur’d merit” as the forces which pushed him to transgress God’s will. Milton evokes the language of chivalry in Medieval Romances. If we take Satan’s speech by itself, he is the Knight in shining armour defending his honour slighted by God having named Christ the Head of Angels. He claims in thin air that he had conjured an impregnable consensus among rebel angels and formed a huge army critical of God’s reign and Christ’s appointment. Milton deliberately exposes Satan as a liar by tendering Abidel’s testimony in the omniscient narrator’s voice (Paradise Lost Book V). Archangel Abidel testifies that the manner in which Christ was elected head of angels was complimentary and unanimous –
“Christ was infinitely superior, yet…”
Satan is so disillusioned by his sense of superiority that he bluffs everyone including himself. He implies that he had engaged in single combat with God, who was wary of losing Heaven. The reader sees through this grandstanding as the narrator has already revealed that Satan was no match for God who had hurled him headlong from the sky.
Satan tells Beelzebub that a single victory does not ensure God’s dominance. At present, they may have lost the field, but that does not mean their spirit has been subjugated. Satan speaks of an indomitable will, a vengeful zeal and everlasting hatred for God in the profound rhetoric of the Noble Vanquished. He decides against rendering the “suppliant knee” asking for mercy, which he believes would be even more humiliating than existing banishment. Albeit the strength of his spirit is magnificent on his own terms, it is nothing but hubris – the best of sentiments and worst of motives. Satan’s heroism is ironical. His pride is bloated and he is vindictive. Milton continually reduces his stature even when apparently he seems to be building it up.
Satan rejects God and accepts Fate (Book V, line 816– Satan says angels are self-created). He believes “this empyrean substance”, the bodily essence of fallen angels, is immortal according to the decree of fate. Confident of his astute foresight, experience and equal military strength, Satan pledges eternal antagonism against God by “force or guile”. These exude overtones of the ludicrous and unlike Greek hero Prometheus, Satan is abjectly selfish. He is fixed on the idea of sustained revenge. Milton endeavoured to create a consciously complicated character in Satan in his epic, avoiding simplistic representations of good and bad, and this demonstrates his acute sense in weaving an epic that is much more than merely a didactic document.
Picture Courtesy- The 13th Floor